In a late-Friday news dump, the Clintons disclosed in a mandatory election filing that they have been paid more than $25 million for giving a combined 104 speeches since 2014. Among the questions raised by this stint on the speaker circuit is: Why are taxpayers still paying for Bill Clinton’s $200,000-a-year pension?
Even before taking into account the cost of life-long Secret Service protection for him and Hillary, which is not publicly disclosed for security reasons, Bill Clinton has received many millions of dollars in pension and benefits from government coffers since he left the White House. This should stop: The Clintons clearly do not need public assistance in their quest to enrich themselves.
It’s not just the Clintons that we’re needlessly subsidizing, of course. Congress has appropriated roughly $60 million since 2000 to pay for pensions, travel, office space, staff, and other benefits for all living former presidents. That’s a mere drop in the bucket of the federal budget, but it will continue to grow as life expectancy increases.
The Former Presidents Act, which mandates these expenditures, was passed in 1958 in response to the financial straits Harry Truman found himself in. After returning to Independence, Mo., the never-rich Truman was reduced to living off the sale of his father’s farm and royalties from his memoir, and reportedly struggled to pay for the cost of keeping up with his correspondence.
Up to that point, former presidents had received nothing in the way of a pension or allowance for staff. But congressmen came to worry that since it was improper for retired presidents to stoop to profiting from their past office, in order to “maintain the dignity” of the presidency some sort of public provision ought to be made for those who used to hold it. The drafters of the legislation aimed, according to a Congressional Research Service report, to “prevent an ex-President from engaging ‘in business or [an] occupation which would demean the office he has held or capitalize upon it in any way deemed improper.’”
That is, the law was passed precisely to prevent the sort of behavior the Clintons have engaged in.
While the Clintons are hardly the first to reap significant financial rewards from their time in the White House, theirs is a particularly egregious case, since their ability to command top dollar from people eager to curry favor or buy influence has much to do with Hillary’s continuing role in “public service.”
The days when retired presidents thought twice about the propriety of giving paid speeches are long gone, so why should taxpayers continue to uphold their end of the bargain?
The Clintons have naturally couched the alacrity with which they’ve cashed in as part of a struggle through Trumanesque hard times: “We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt,” Hillary protested. She averred that “it was not easy — Bill has worked really hard.” Bill still fancies himself a bit of a pauper: “We gotta pay our bills,” he told NBC News, describing $500,000 per speech as a reasonable sum. “I spend a couple of hours a day just doing the research” for his speeches, he explained.
The days when retired presidents, of either party, would think twice about the propriety of giving paid speeches or inking multi-million-dollar book deals are long gone and are not likely to return. Given that, it’s not clear why taxpayers should continue to uphold their end of the bargain. If we must have a culture in which it goes without saying that ex-presidents will reap fortunes from their celebrity status and political connections, then the least we can do is refrain from spending taxpayer money with no hopes of stopping it. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush can both afford to pay half a million dollars a year to lease 8,000 square feet of office space, if that’s what they feel they require, without taxpayers picking up the tab.
In a modest republic of citizen-officeholders, a modest presidential pension might be appropriate. We now have neither. The simple solution is to means-test these benefits. The idea would be that any president who failed to meet a certain income level after leaving office would be entitled to the pension and benefits. The income threshold could be set relatively high — chances are most people would still forgo the benefits for more-lucrative ventures.
Changing the law would also be a way for the next president to lead by example, since addressing the country’s looming entitlement crisis will likely require means-testing of some kind for Medicare and Social Security benefits. The president would have more credibility for urging congressmen to follow suit and scale back their own overly generous pension benefits, too.
America needs welfare and entitlement reform — why not start at the White House?